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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is the gray wolf still endangered in the United States and how successful have re-intoduction efforts been? -- Loren Renquist, Salem, OR

The gray wolf is still considered “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But a June 2013 proposal by the Obama administration to “delist” the animals—save for a small struggling population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico—could change that if finalized later this year.

Gray wolves were added to the Endangered Species List in 1975 after being wiped out across the contiguous 48 states by government-sponsored trapping and poisoning programs. Thanks to protections under the ESA, populations have since bounced back nicely in two out of the three regions where protections and reintroduction programs were initiated. In the Great Lakes, wolf populations rebounded from just a few hundred individuals in the 1970s to over 5,000 today, expanding their range from Minnesota to Wisconsin and Michigan. In the Northern Rockies, natural migration from Canada and reintroductions in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho have resulted in some 1,700 gray wolves now roaming across Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon.

“Despite these substantial gains, the job of wolf recovery is far from over,” reports the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). “Wolves need connected populations for genetic sustainability, and natural ecosystems need wolves; yet today wolves occupy less than five percent of their historic range.” That’s why CBD has joined a chorus of voices in urging the federal government to continue protecting gray wolves under the ESA.

The U.S. government had been scaling back wolf protections in recent years, so animal advocates weren’t surprised to see the Obama administration’s proposal. “In April 2011 Congress attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill that stripped Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in all of Montana and Idaho, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of northern Utah—an unprecedented action that, for the first time in the history of the Act, removed a species from the endangered list by political fiat instead of science,” says CBD, adding that wolves were subsequently delisted in Wyoming and the Great Lakes. “Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota and Wisconsin have begun public wolf hunting and/or trapping, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating with state agencies, is expanding its program of trapping, radio-collaring and releasing, then aerial gunning the pack-mates of these collared wolves—a program that…had been limited to those that preyed on livestock.” CBD fears that such tactics will become common if ESA protections are removed in the lower 48 states.

Luckily for the wolves, the Obama administration’s delisting proposal suffered a setback this past February when an independent review panel concluded that the decision was based on insufficient science and should therefore not be enacted. “The science used by the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) concerning genetics and taxonomy of wolves was preliminary and currently not the best available science,” reported panel member Steven Courtney, a scientist at UC Santa Barbara.

The review panel finding has opened a new public comment period on a proposal that has already generated more than a million comments. A final decision on the delisting proposal is expected by June.

CONTACTS: CBD, www.biologicaldiversity.org; USFWS, www.fws.gov/home/wolfrecovery.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What would you consider to be the key areas we need to improve to make our food safer for our health and easier on our environment? -- Billy A., Oakland, CA

Although we have come a long way in recent years with regard to the safety and sustainability of our food supply, we still have a long way to go. Toxic pesticides are still used on the vast majority of U.S. grown crops, while other hormone-disrupting chemicals are omnipresent in our food packaging. And excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture threatens to render many human drugs ineffective. Environmental leaders would like to see the federal government step up and institute regulations banning such substances in our food supply, but for now it’s still up to individual consumers to make the right choices.

Fruits and vegetables grown on conventional (i.e. not organic) farms make up some 96 percent of the produce we eat—and expose us to many pesticides. Two of the most toxic, chlorpyrifoss and DDT, are also quite common: 93 percent of Americans carry trace amounts of the former in their bloodstreams, while 99 percent of us have DDT residue coursing through our veins. These chemicals on our food can be harmful to adults, but health experts are even more concerned about what they are doing to our kids. The non-profit Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) points to recent studies showing that children with high pesticide exposures in the womb are at increased risk of being born with birth defects and are much more likely to encounter developmental delays, ADHD and autism spectrum disorders.

A related issue is the hormone-disrupting bisphenol-A (BPA) in our food supply as a result of its widespread use in the lining of cans and other food and drink containers. “Nearly every person in America has some BPA in his or her body,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading green group. “And yet, this food-packaging chemical may cause problems in developing fetuses, infants and children by altering behavior and increasing the risk of prostate cancer, as a government report concluded nearly two years ago.” Other studies have shown links between BPA exposure and a variety of human health problems including erectile dysfunction, breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Another big hurdle to a safer, greener food system is our increasing reliance on antibiotics to fight bacterial infections in livestock. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has known since the 1970s that feeding large amounts of antibiotics to healthy livestock breeds antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can in turn render many of the antibiotics used for humans ineffective. In fact, antibiotic resistant infections are already killing 23,000 Americans each year. A 2012 FDA policy change calls on livestock producers to refrain from using antibiotics to boost growth rates for pigs, cows, sheep and chickens, but it remains to be seen if the industry will toe the line or use loopholes to keep up the steady stream of antibiotics.

PANNA is one of many voices demanding an overhaul of how the FDA regulates our food supply. “We all want to believe that government agencies are protecting us and our food supply from chemical contaminants—but they are not,” reports the group. “They do not have the regulatory framework to do so.” The group would like to see the U.S. trade-in its policy that treats chemicals as “innocent until proven guilty” for something akin to Europe’s regulatory system, where a “health-protective precautionary approach” dictates which chemicals are approved for widespread use.

CONTACTS: PANNA, www.panna.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; FDA, www.fda.gov.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I recently became vegetarian for ethical reasons, but I am missing the taste of meat. Are there any tasty veggie options out there that can satisfy my desire for steak and chicken? -- Missy Jenkins, Pittsburgh, PA

Aside from its brutal treatment of livestock animals, the meat industry is no doubt one of the worst offenders when it comes to the environment. Producing one kilogram of beef requires 150 square meters of land and 15,000 liters of water, most of which is used to grow feed for the animal. That same kilogram generates 27 kilograms of climate-altering carbon dioxide, the equivalent of driving a car more than 100 miles. Indeed, beef has 13 times the carbon emissions of an equivalent amount of vegetable-based protein.

Hungry mouths around the world take a hit, too: Some 70 percent of the grain produced in the U.S. is fed to livestock animals but the land used to grow it could feed some 800 million people instead. For this and other reasons many of us have given up meat altogether. But it doesn’t mean we don’t still crave the taste.

Fortunately, there are more choices than ever for vegetarians with latent carnivorous instincts. One young company, Beyond Meat, has millions of dollars in funding from high-tech heavyweights and has made a big splash in recent months with the launch of its first two meat alternative products, Beef-Free Crumbles and Chicken-Free Strips. Each of its products looks and tastes like the meat it is emulating while offering the same protein content—but without any saturated or trans fats or cholesterol, let alone gluten or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In taste tests, most consumers can’t tell which dishes contain actual beef or chicken versus Beyond Meat’s self-proclaimed “perfect substitutes.”

The company reports that it takes four-tenths of a pound of soy and pea plants to make a pound of their Chicken-Free Strips, versus three pounds of grain-based feed to get a pound’s worth of meat from an actual chicken. That all translates into many fewer pesticides and carbon emissions and much less water used in the process. Beyond Meat’s investors include the leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams’ Obvious Corporation, and even Bill Gates, who has expressed his hope that the company’s products can play a role in switching more people in developing countries over to plant-based proteins.

Of course, there are many other meat alternatives out there, too. A trip down the freezer aisle at Whole Foods yields sightings of Amy’s Bistro Burgers, Gardenburgers, Boca Burgers, Gardein Ultimate Beefless Sliders and Beefless Tips, Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Burgers and Sol Cuisine Meatless Chicken. Meanwhile, the Meat Alternatives section of VeganEssentials.com offers up Upton’s Naturals’ Bacon Style Seitan Strips, Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Vegan Fishless Sticks, Field Roast’s Classic Vegan Meatloaf, and even Meatless Select Fishless Vegan Tuna. Another classic option is any number of meatless products from the Kellogg’s-owned Morningstar Farms, which are widely available in mainstream grocery stores from coast-to-coast and which account for some 60 percent of the meat alternatives market in the U.S.

With meat production expected to double by 2050 as the world’s human population tops nine billion, there has never been a better time to start curbing our enthusiasm for conventional steaks, hamburgers, chicken breasts and sausages.

CONTACTS: Beyond Meat, www.beyondmeat.com; VeganEssentials, www.veganessentials.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: A recent study showed that Bisphenol A (BPA) was hardly the human health risk researchers once believed it to be. Should I still try to avoid products that may contain it? -- Carolyn Danes, Waukesha, WI

Some 93 percent of us carry traces of the synthetic compound Bisphenol A (BPA) in our bloodstreams, so it’s no wonder that public health advocates are concerned about its potential effects. Developed in the 1950s to strengthen plastics and epoxy resins, BPA is today used in a wide range of products, including many plastic food and drink containers, the lining of most cans, some paper products, and dental sealants.

But with widespread use of BPA has come increased scrutiny regarding its potential impact on human health. When ingested, BPA mimics naturally occurring human hormones and thus can potentially interfere with the body’s endocrine and reproductive workings. According to the nonprofit Breast Cancer Fund, previous research has linked BPA exposure to with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, miscarriages, decreased birth weight at term, breast and prostate cancer, reproductive and sexual dysfunctions, altered immune system activity, metabolic problems and diabetes in adults, and cognitive and behavioral development in young children. These concerns have led the European Union, Canada—and more recently the U.S.—to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and other items geared toward babies and children.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that typical low-level BPA exposure does not pose any health risk. A February 2014 study by FDA researchers found that low doses of the compound did not affect the health of rats over a 90-day study period. While study rats exposed to higher doses of BPA had lower body weights, abnormal female reproductive development and altered hormone levels, there were no such effects in rats exposed to lower doses more akin to what humans experience.

But critics point out some flaws in that study which call its conclusions into question. For one, a control group of rats that was supposed to remain unexposed to BPA somehow had levels of the compound in their blood equivalent to the lowest-dose study population. FDA researchers maintain that this contamination of the control group did not affect their results because neither group of rats showed any effects given their low-dose exposure. Another issue is that the researchers did not look at neurological effects such as changes in learning, memory and behavior.

“What needs to follow is whether these exposures are causing neurobehavioral changes,” Harvard epidemiologist Joe Braun told Environmental Health News, adding that previous research has shown that estrogen receptors in the brains of rats were triggered by low doses of BPA. “Hopefully [the FDA] will address that down the road.”

More research is underway still. The February 2014 FDA study is part of an ongoing two-year assessment of the toxicity of BPA. Dozens of university studies are also in progress to shed more light on just how risky our use of BPA may be. Consumers should continue to take precautions to limit their intake of BPA by avoiding polycarbonate plastic food and drink containers and metal cans, and by refraining from putting plastic items in the microwave—a process that can expedite the leaching of BPA into food.

CONTACTS: Breast Cancer Fund, www.breastcancerfund.org; U.S. Food & Drug Administration, www.fda.gov; Environmental Health News, www.environmentalhealthnews.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Do you agree with the recent claim in the Wall Street Journal that organic agriculture isn’t actually sustainable? -- Chuck Romaniello, Pittsburgh, PA

Dr. Henry I. Miller’s May 15, 2014 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal has indeed made waves in the organic farming community. Miller, former director of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, argues that conventional farming—which uses synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and often genetically modified (GM) seed stock to maximize yields—is actually better for the environment, producing more food and using less water compared to organic farming.

“Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but its farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones,” says Miller. “The low yields of organic agriculture—typically 20 percent to 50 percent less than conventional agriculture—impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption.” Miller adds that organic methods can cause significant leaking of nitrates from composted manure—the fertilizer of choice for most organic farms—into groundwater, polluting drinking water. He also cites research showing that large-scale composting generates significant amounts of greenhouse gases and “may also deposit pathogenic bacteria on or in food crops, which has led to more frequent occurrences of food poisoning in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

“If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, says Miller, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues.” He adds that conventional farming’s embrace of GM crops—a no-no to organic farmers—is yet another way we can boost yields and feed more people with less land.

But, the Washington, DC-based Organic Center takes issue with Miller’s allegations about nitrates polluting groundwater: “Most studies that examine nutrient runoff show that organic production methods result in reduced nitrogen losses when compared to conventional crop production,” reports the group.

The Organic Center also disputes Miller’s claims about the organic farming’s carbon footprint, arging that overall energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions are much less from organic farming than for conventional agriculture. The group also says that taking into account the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the production (not just the use) of synthetic fertilizer changes the equation entirely. The group cites a recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization which found that organic agriculture can potentially reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to conventional farming.

Also, Miller’s statements about GM crops overlook the ecological problems associated with their use. “For example,” the Organic Center reports, “transgene movement from GM crops to wild, weedy relatives could increase the invasiveness of weeds.” Also, genetic modification has led to higher pesticide use in agricultural systems and an increase in herbicide-resistant weeds. Some worry this is leading to a vicious cycle whereby farmers use more and more chemical herbicides to battle hardier and hardier weeds.

As the price of organic food continues to drop, more and more people will be able to afford it and the increased demand may well drive the conversion to organic agriculture more than policy or philosophy.

CONTACTS: Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com; The Organic Center, www.organic-center.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.


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